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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

My photocopier – 1981-2012

Yes. This …


… has finally moved out of my home, and out of my life. Last week, Men collected it and took it … I don’t know where. A dump, presumably.

I recently wrote here about the continuing life of physical books and about the limitations of the idea of the paperless office or paperless home. Office-working commenters piled in to describe the persistence of paper in their offices, often in the teeth of earlier diktats from on high to the contrary.

But as far as my own libertarian activities are concerned, I really have pretty much completely abandoned communicating on paper, with my own writing, and most definitely with anyone else’s. Which means that this machine, with which I once processed all the paper that I once processed, really had to go, if only to help me to accommodate my ever increasing hoard of books. Only inertia had caused the photocopier to linger on, in my kitchen. That, and the affection I still feel for something which once made such a difference to my life.

A simple way of describing what this machine did for me, and for a small gang of mostly London-based libertarians, from the 1980s until the early 2000s, is that it enabled us to do something like blogging, before there was blogging. One of the many pleasures of blogging is that we don’t now have to worry that much about how many people will want to read what we bloggers feel inclined to write. We like it when lots of people tune in, but if they don’t, it’s no big catastrophe. If only a few fellow fanatics read a piece I have written about, say, cricket, no unread piles of cricket verbiage accumulate in an expensive Samizdata office, causing us to wonder if we should then “market” the damned stuff, or try to give it away, or just take the hit and bin it. If, on the other hand, Instapundit instalanches something one of us has written, no queues to read it form while we scrabble about to find money for another print run and agonise about how many copies to print. All that nonsense, given only a bit of geekery to stop crashes, now takes care of itself. Here’s what we think. If you don’t care about what we think, well, we are a tad disappointed but we can live with it.

In its more cumbersome way, my photocopier enabled the network of libertarians that had coalesced around the old Alternative Bookshop in the early 1980s to be similarly unconcerned with mere numerical popularity. It enabled the creation of a tiny little libertarian internet, based on physical proximity and a mailing list, before and until the real internet came along.

One of us would write something that seemed of interest to fellow libertarians. I would do the artwork, with the words “cut and paste” being for me a reality long before they turned into a mere e-metaphor. It also mattered a lot in the early days, before even computerised desktop publishing, that I could photo-reduce text with this photocopier and thereby fit more writing onto one or a few sheets of A4 or A3. That the photocopier was A3 capable was also extremely important (which is also why it was so big). That enabled longer publications, clutches of A3 sheets folded down the middle and stapled twice in line with the fold (rather than a mere clutch of A4 sheets stapled at the top left corner) to actually look like publications, instead of looking like mere photocopies. (My long armed stapler was also an important piece of kit during those times.)

I would then run off only as many copies of each piece of writing as we definitely knew we needed. If whatever it was turned into a surprise hit, then more copies would be done, as and when, about half a dozen at a time. If not, no worries. As I said, no storage problems, and no fretting about print runs or about how to pay for them. It was just straight on to creating the next publication, and the next, and the next. The photocopier did enable a large quantity of publications to be produced, but not in the form of an excessive number of copies of a few publications. Rather did it enable us to deploy a few copies of many titles, ever more as time went by. Spread out on a row of conference tables, they could have quite an impact, and people could pick out exactly the ones they wanted. Not all that many libertarians were switched on by these means, but a decent number were. Certainly a lot more than would otherwise have been.

Then when the internet did arrive, all these laboriously contrived publications found a perfect new home. Undistracted by any fantasies about making money (as opposed to merely not spending too much) we shoved them all up and gave them all away. During the first few years of blogging, I believe they had quite an impact, turning many an “I thought I was the only one” libertarian into the real thing.

At first there was a real problem in the form of the un-copy-and-paste-ability of .pdf files, but that problem has now gone away. Thank you Adobe.

My photocopier lingered on as a rather undignified aid to scanning text from books into my computer. Until quite recently, I could only make my succession of computer scanners work if there were no shadows or complications for them to contend with (such as seeing one and a half pages but only needing to attend to one page), which meant me scanning a photocopy of what I wanted to scan, and then chopping off what I didn’t want, with scissors. I know, crazy. And I’m sure I could have sorted out all such problems years ago if I had really needed to. But this ridiculous method did work, and it wasn’t as if I had bought a photocopier only to do only this. And then, suddenly, my most recent scanner finally proved to be truly intelligent, even in the absence of any intelligence from me. Scanning stuff from books suddenly worked a treat, and the photocopier stopped being any use to me at all. At which point its bulk no longer seemed endearing, only annoying, and it had to go.

But when my photocopier really made a difference, it really made a difference. I am very glad to have been able to record my gratitude to it with this obituary.

3 comments to My photocopier – 1981-2012

  • Johnathan Pearce

    It made a difference to my life by encouraging me to write pamphlets for the libertarian scene in the late 80s and 90s, Brian. It may be a lump of plastic with some wires, but that object is invested with a lot of significance. One can almost feel a pang at the thought of it heading to the scrap heap.

  • Dale Amon

    Sigh. Now some future historian-entrepreneur will have to get some nanocritters to generate a copy of the photocopier so the Brian Micklethwait museum can convey the feel of the origins of that long ago day when a few British Libertarians first put the boot into the Socialist State…

  • The paperless office is becoming a reality with a new generation of people coming through that are happy to work without printing off stuff or copying it,.